The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has observed that there may be prima facie violation of Forest Conservation Act (FCA-1980) in the tree cutting incident for construction of a beer bottling plant in Odisha’s Dhenkanal district.
A bench of Justices S P Wangdi and K Ramakrishnan said, “It prima facie appears to us that there is violation of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 by the Respondent No. 6 (IDCO) in carrying out the present operation. We, therefore, direct the parties to maintain status quo until further orders”. Infrastructure Development Corporation (IDCO) is a state government company that allots lands for industrial projects from its land bank.
When the protests in Balrampur came to light, Finance Minister Sashi Bhushan Behera had said, “IDCO has provided land for a beer factory in Balrampur. The land is not from a protected forest area”. IDCO’s senior officers were not available to comment on the NGT observation.
Land and liquor, a potent mix in Odisha politics
The felling of trees on land that is disputed by locals, that too for a beer factory, puts the ruling BJD at risk of antagonising rural voters, especially women, in a state where land and liquor have always been potent political issues. In the past, land protests in Odisha have led to delay or withdrawal of major industrial projects such as those promoted by Vedanta in Lanjigarh, Tata in Kalinganagar and POSCO in Paradip. Rural women have supported the anti-liquor movement historically, a strong recent example being the hooch tragedy of 2012.
Earlier this month, dozens of women from Balarampur village clashed with police while protesting felling of trees in their locality for construction of a beer bottling plant approved by the state government.
Police officers were seen dragging women, who, in a replay of Chipko movement of the 1970s, stood hugging trees that were identified for cutting.
Explaining the violation of FCA (1980), counsel for petitioner Sankar Pani said, “When asked (by NGT) if the land was under dispute, the government admitted it. As per records, the land was converted to gochara (grazing) and patita (unused) in 1988. But the remarks column of the Record of Rights has a notation indicating the land was sabik jungle kissam (previous jungle classification)”.
“Since FCA 1980, no forest land can be converted for other purposes and any such changes by governments at the local level will not be recognised. How can the government mark the land for industry?” Pani said.
Following the protests in Balrampur, the BJD government came under fire from opposition parties Congress and BJP.
Minister Naveen Patnaik ordered relocation of the plant after a letter from Revenue Divisional Commissioner (RDC-North) D V Swamy recommended to Industries Department that allocation of Kolkata-based P&A Bottlers Pvt Ltd “may be cancelled and alternate site provided”.
The RDC also directed that “felling of trees may be stopped” and “immediate plantation should be taken up”.
Pani said the state government’s tree cutting “almost amounts to contempt of court”. “The matter was pending before the NGT since January 11. The state government had sought time to file its response. However, instead of doing that they proceeded with tree cutting”, he said.